To Justina Schlund, senior director of content & field learning with CASEL, routines play a crucial role in school — even a simple daily check-in every morning, where classes share their feelings, thoughts or concerns. Counting on something that repeats daily can help learners see school as an emotional safety net filled with traditions.
Those, in turn, weave together a community students can turn to when other parts of their lives become overwhelming.
“Coming into a place where I am valued, seen, and known if I am feeling bad and need extra support, that is where social-emotional learning helps,” Schlund said. “I know what to expect.”
Just like adults, students face a barrage of stressors in their lives. School alone can be a maze of demands including exams, projects, social situations and choices students have to make about their futures.
But outside concerns accumulate, as well. These can include climate change, COVID-19, political changes, school threats and extended family living in a country at war. Stressors in general can impact emotional health and undermine a student's ability to focus and learn.
Social-emotional learning skills are a set of competencies educators believe students can lean on to empower them when faced with worries. SEL tools can help students learn how to best express feelings as they arise, develop agency and confidence in their ability to handle their concerns. These skills can strengthen their resiliency during stressful times, too.
Experts warn, however, that SEL tools do not replace mental health supports, particularly those needed by students who have experienced trauma. While SEL can help students develop strength and confidence in themselves and their abilities, trauma requires many levels of support.
But by seeding SEL tools into classrooms daily, educators can help students build an early emotional foundation they can depend on beyond their academic pursuits and into their personal lives and future careers.
Naming their feelings and concerns
One of the first ways to help students develop a core sense of their feelings is to teach them how to name them. CASEL’s Schlund believes this practice can start with very young students and grow as learners get older and experience more complex emotions. Feeling sad may at first show itself expressed as disappointment, for example.
“Being able to name those emotions is one of the first steps to coping with them,” she said.
Once learners can give their feelings a name, they can develop strategies to work through and process these emotions. Those steps can include simple actions such as taking a deep breath or pausing and thinking before acting — measures that work for students and adults alike, Schlund said.
Classes can use these tools to support friends and peers. And by reaching out to lift fellow students, they can also end up helping themselves.
“These are other ways to feel a sense of purpose,” Schlund said. “How can I help and channel my emotions, and help others while learning ways to contribute to my community? They can also help me cope with what’s going on.”
Building relationships in a safe space
For students to feel safe enough to share, they need to be in a place where they’re heard and seen — particularly if they’re asked to grapple with feelings that may be uncomfortable or even frightening.
But building a safe space for students starts with educators. That means students need to be able to trust their teachers, and feel that their teachers recognize them, said David Osher, vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes of Research.
Casual conversations or brief moments when two people bump into each other in school hallways, for example, won't foster that connection. But small moments can build that trust. Osher suggested pronouncing students’ names correctly, or knowing what embarrasses a learner and making a conscious decision not to do that, can deepen both a connection and respect between students and teachers.
“It means knowing them,” Osher said.
When students then share their concerns, they won't worry about being possibly teased for their feelings, and they will know their emotions and identity are seen and accepted by peers and adults alike.
“Then they feel the teacher is someone who is committed to them and where they feel their agency is invited,” Osher said. “That’s the best way of doing it.”
Channeling their concerns
With agency often comes the impetus from students to take some action to correct a problem or issue. Stephanie Jones, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor of Child Development and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, encourages educators to channel students’ feelings into something they can do within their larger community. That can be their town or city, or even within the smaller community of their classroom.
Those efforts could include writing letters of condolence to people who have lost their homes to a natural disaster in their town, making a poster, or writing a poem or letter to their local congressperson about their concerns on climate change. To Jones, providing students with an opportunity to take action is a very important part of managing their emotions, as it helps dissipate any sense of hopelessness.
“Kids are brimming with energy to do something,” Jones said. “And they want to be given opportunities to play a role.”
Educators can also weave projects into curriculum that give students a way to express concerns or meet community needs. These could include a school garden filled with native plants that don’t require watering, which students could design, research, and then present as a proposal to a local school board.
An event like a fire in a local grocery store could also spur students to organize alternative ways to arrange for food and other household staples to be delivered to older residents in their community.
These actions not only help students learn how to manage and direct their feelings, but also teach them how to turn to their communities and each other for support during tough times. In turn, that develops a sense of resiliency in knowing they can handle other future challenges they will undoubtedly face.
“Resiliency is being able to bounce back when things are challenging,” Jones said. “And children who have an array of social and emotional skills foundation can manage tough things that come their way and bounce back.”